Tag Archives: Iain Banks

Inspiration Monday: Heroes

Iain Banks

Iain Banks

Life is what happens when you are making other plans.  Today I am once again deviating from my plan because something momentous happened yesterday.  The Scottish novelist, Iain Banks died, aged 59.  He was the author of ‘The Wasp Factory’, voted one of the Great Novels of the Twentieth Century, as well as ‘The Crow Road’, a book which begins with the immortal line:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Iain Banks, The Crow Road, Scribners 1992.

Surely, this is the greatest first line of any novel since Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and Orwell’s ‘1984’.

Regular readers will know that Banksie was a hero of mine.  I went to see him speak several times, as he was a regular visitor to Norwich, near where I live.  He was best described in three words, in my experience:

Angry.  Talented.  Funny.

He introduced me to a Scotland that I fell in love with, and to a way of writing that is spare, funny and insightful.  He was extraordinarily productive and his work covered a wide range of subjects, genres and styles.  When you opened a new Banksie novel, you never knew quite what you were going to get next.

If you want to read the best of Banks’s literary fiction, I recommend ‘The Wasp Factory’, ‘The Crow Road’, and ‘Complicity’.  I can’t comment on his science fiction, for which he was also justly famous, because I never managed to get through one.  Space operas aren’t really my thing.  But as I have said before,  his ‘Raw Spirit’, a book about whisky, driving, Scotland and being a writer, is one of the most charming I have read.

It is sad that a writer so talented and prolific has been taken from us so young, but why am I writing about this?  Because Banksie was a writing hero of mine, that’s why.  A writer I admired and wanted to emulate.  Like Virginia Woolf, his photograph hangs in my study to inspire me.  He taught me that protagonists don’t have to be likeable, and that little memories from growing up can serve as icons of our internal psychology.  He taught me that you should keep at it, and write what you love.  And that it’s okay to be funny, and a bit geeky.

Creative Exercise:

Who are the people that inspire you?  Whose work do you seek to emulate, or admire?  Whose biography have you read for a better understanding of the creative process?  Who are your artistic heroes?

These people are your creative ancestors, and you must always acknowledge where you come from.  Take time in your notebook to name the people who inspire you, whether it is their life struggle from which you take courage, as I do with Woolf and Frida Kahlo, or their creative process which fascinates you.  Perhaps it is their politics, or religious faith you admire, or their down-to-earth attitude.  Perhaps it is simply the creative work they produced.  Whether your hero is Steven Spielberg, Gandhi, Maya Angelou or Picasso, explore what they mean to you, what their example says about where you want to take your art.

Happy Creating,


A Little Melodic Inspiration

Where do your ideas come from?

That is the question most writers dread.  Or rave about.  Iain Banks rants about it at great length in his glorious book, ‘Raw Spirit‘:

“Leaving aside the obvious, ‘Class A drugs, actually’ or, ‘A wee man in Auchtermuchty’, I’ve sometimes wondered what sort of answer people really expect to this.”

(‘Raw Spirit’ by Iain Banks, Century Books London, 2003 p255)

And so he goes on. I asked him at a signing once about how he dealt with getting stuck in the middle of a novel, and he obviously interpreted it as me asking The Question, and didn’t take it well!

But in my mind its a reasonable question for one thought alone, and it is this:

Maybe we don’t know where the ideas come from, but how do we get our minds into the right place for them to arrive? 

Its about putting lots of mulch in the ground to make it a rich, fertile place for new things to grow.

I have an assortment of answers to this problem, but today I thought I would share one of them with you.


I make a playlist for every novel I write.  When I am sitting down to work on a scene, or with the characters, I play the playlist on my headphones, and this gets me in the mood, gets me in touch with the characters, the environment, the colours and sounds through which they move.  Often, particular characters end up being associated with specific tracks.

And sometimes, it is just one piece of music that I hear that sparks a story, or gets me in the mood to write.

Here are some to try:

Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge

(This is the core soundtrack for a novel I am working on at the moment)

Suede – Asbestos

(This is the ‘title theme’ for a novel about my favourite character, Evenlode.)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams

(This last one I listened to for six months pretty much continually while I was writing the climactic scenes for my first novel, which was set on the South Downs in Pre-Roman Britain.)

Writing Exercise:

Get out your CD collection, or your iPod, or fire up youtube, however you listen to music.  Listen to a few tracks and see what mental images are conjured up.  What landscape can you see?  What kind of people inhabit this world? Can you see their faces?  What challenges are they facing?  Who do they love?  Who do they hate?

Get out your writing notebook and begin to set down what you can of these images.  You may need to make lists of ideas or words, or you might like to write passages of description.  You might even draw!  Note everything that comes to you, and listen again, as many times as you need to in order to get out as much as you can.

Don’t forget to write down the piece of music and the artist whose work generated the images you have found.

This exercise may prompt a whole new story, or you could use your descriptions to feed into something you are already working on, or something you have yet to write.  Nothing you write is ever wasted – it can all be recycled into new work.

Happy listening – and writing!